Taking a look at some possible defence targets for the Leafs through both free agency and trade.
When Mac and I started this blog, we decided that we wouldn’t write about the Leafs more than we would any other team. There are so many Toronto centred blogs, websites and podcasts that we felt adding another to the mix would be limiting us and the fans (all of 10 of you). However, being Leafs fans, we have once again endured an embarrassing series loss that had Leafs nation up in arms about how this team has and will not go anywhere with their current roster. If you listen to the podcast, you know that I ripped into them on the last episode and I stand by my words, something needs to give, you cannot go into next season with that team, there needs to be some major changes.
Now, I will say that they should absolutely not trade one of their big 4 forwards, outside of them, Morgan Rielly, and probably Jake Muzzin, everyone else is fair game. General manager Kyle Dubas wasted no time doing just that by pulling off what may be his best trade yet by moving forward Kasperi Kapanen, RFA Pontus Aberg and prospect Jesper Lindgren to the Pittsburgh Penguins for the 15th overall pick, prospect Filip Hallander, RFA Evan Rodrigues, and AHL defencemen David Warsofsky. That is a very nice return for a player making $3.2 million playing on your third line. But Dubas still has plenty of work to do.
Any fan can confidently tell you what the Leafs biggest and glaring issue is and has been since 2004, also “conveniently” the last time they won a playoff series, and even then, the defence. With what seems like limited cap space, Dubas decided to move on from Kapanen in hopes of clearing up some cap for what we all can assume is for some reinforcements on the back end. Sure, the Kapanen trade is great, but it still does not directly solve the Leafs defensive issues, it does however provide them more options to do so, and that’s what this article is going to discuss. Currently as it stands, the Leafs have Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Rasmus Sandin, which seems like it will be the opening night left side, recently signed KHL defenceman of the year Mikko Lehtonen, RFA Travis Dermott, right shot Justin Holl, and prospect Timothy Liljegren to round out that right side. That is uh, well not good. So, here are 10 options that Kyle Dubas may explore this offseason to help rehaul the Leafs poor defence core.
Through Free Agency:
1. Alex Pietrangelo: Yes, we know, Leafs fans always try to convince themselves that they will sign the biggest free agent every offseason. However, this could end up being somewhat possible. I do believe that Pietrangelo will ultimately stay in St. Louis, it would be very unwise to let him go, but if he were to go anywhere else, doesn’t Toronto make sense? He is a hometown boy who will absolutely be the number one guy on the Leafs, if the money is there it could happen. This is absolutely a reach for the stars kind of situation, but I figured I would get the most unlikely option out of the way early. Signing Pietrangelo would also mean completely eliminating the third, and most likely fourth line, while replacing them with league minimum players, and that in itself would really affect this team’s offence. I do not think that is the best way to solve the Leafs issues.
2. Travis Hamonic: Now this is a player who I would love for the Leafs to sign and by far my favourite free agent option. Hamonic is not a flashy defenceman, but that isn’t what the Leafs need, they need a player who can play alongside Morgan Rielly and provide him with stability. The issue with Hamonic is that he is not the greatest at defending the opposition's entries, however he is very good at possession exits and entries which is Sheldon Keef’s style of play. He could excel playing under a coach that emphasizes his strengths and playing alongside Morgan Rielly. If the price is right ($5 million or lower), I think he would be a great fit.
3. Dylan DeMelo: Considered an analytic darling, DeMelo had a breakout year posting some excellent defensive numbers while playing majority of the year on a bad Ottawa Senators team. At 27 years old, he could be a solid option because of his age and contact, since he most likely won’t demand too much money. Is he a top pairing RD? Ideally, no. Would he still be Morgan Rielly’s best D partner throughout his career? Unfortunately, yes. I see this being more of a backup plan signing, or even a secondary acquisition that sees him playing more of a shutdown role alongside Jake Muzzin.
4. Radko Gudas: I have seen the rumours about Gudas being all but confirmed to be in a Leafs uniform next season. I don’t hate the idea of it, but I can’t see I am overly thrilled about it. Gudas has seen his defensive numbers drop tremendously over the past season or two and was even scratched by the Washington Capitals for the first two games of their first round series against the New York Islanders, a team who is known for their defensive style of play and not their offence. So, what does that say about Gudas’ defensive play? Probably not very good. I would not mind him as a third pairing guy playing sheltered minutes but then you are taking playing time away from the likes of Liljegren or Lehtonen which to me, doesn’t make much sense. The only thing Leafs fans will like about this guy is he is as gritty and tough as they come, not afraid to lay the body, which is something the Leafs lack severely. I am just not sure the pros outweigh the cons here.
5. Chris Tanev: This is an interesting one because he is the exact type of player the Leafs need, he is big, physical, and solid defensively. Not the greatest but also not nearly as bad as what we have seen on this blue line. The issue here is Tanev has some hard miles on him, he almost never plays a full season because of an injury and this is in part due to the fact that he puts his body on the line every game, every shift. The fact that he is 30 probably doesn’t help his case either, it seems the injuries are going to keep piling on if he continues to play that style of game. A healthy Tanev would be an ideal option for the Leafs, but with their cap issues, I am not sure spending around $5-6 million for 40 something games of Tanev is the best investment.
1. Damon Severson: This player came on to my radar after seeing a tweet by Rachel Doerrie, and if you don’t follow her on twitter, you absolutely should, she is fantastic. She worked for the New Jersey Devils front office so she knows this player better than most and suggested that the Leafs should maybe inquire about his services. He is only 26 years old and making $4,166,666 for 3 more years, that is a very team friendly deal in both cap hit and control. Severson is a great all-around player, good numbers in his own end and contributes in the offensive zone as well. Amassing over 30 points in three of his four years throughout his early career while effectively being able to exit the zone with possession. Due to his age and team contract, Severson is probably my favourite trade target for the Leafs.
2. Josh Manson: I am sure most Leafs fans have heard this name been tossed around for a while now on Leafs twitter. For good reason too, Manson is 28-years old with outstanding defensive numbers and has 2 years left on his deal at $4.1 million.
Not a very offensive defenceman but quite frankly, that isn’t what the Leafs need. What they do need is someone who can break up plays and turn the puck up the ice in a hurry, and that is what Manson does. Pairing him with Rielly would allow him to gain some confidence and join the play more responsibility as Manson can stay back and stabilize the blue line. Personally, besides Severson, this is my next favourite trade candidate for the Leafs, and it is certainly not by much either. Dubas should absolutely be calling Anaheim in attempts to fleece another trade.
3. Colton Parayko: Maybe not THE Blues defenceman Leafs fans want, but certainly still a very good one to have. As I mentioned above, I find it very hard to believe that the Blues would let Pietrangelo walk, but in order to keep him, they do have to clear up some space. Parayko has been linked to the Leafs before, mainly for William Nylander, and they could be in talks once again. A rumour surfaced just a few days ago stating that the Leafs may offer the Blues the 15th overall pick they just received from Pittsburgh, RD prospect Timothy Liljrgren and forward Andreas Johnsson for Parayko. The 27-year old Alberta native is a big defenceman standing at 6’6” who uses his body to his advantage, he has 2 years left on his deal at a cap hit of $5.5 million. He has surpassed the 30-point mark in his first 3 seasons while amassing 28 in his last two (had this season not been cut short, he certainly would have passed 30 once again).
4. Adam Larsson: This name has been floated around for a while as well and to be honest, I don’t see it happening, but it could be interesting. It was rumoured to be a thing because Edmonton has and still does need wingers to play alongside Connor McDavid, and the Leafs have plenty of fast skilled wingers to spare. Larsson has just one more year on his deal at, oddly enough, $4,166,666, so he would ultimately be rental, and we saw how that didn’t exactly work out with Tyson Barrie. Now, of course Barrie was touted to be this offensive powerhouse and that just didn’t happen, but Larsson is seen as a steady stay at home type D. That is what the Leafs need, but you will need to resign him after one year and his stats have not been great. I think this player may have been hyped up a little considering he was the return for Taylor Hall when New Jersey and Edmonton made the swap. That isn’t Larsson’s fault, it’s just the portrayal from the media and fans that may have overstated how good this defenceman is. Unless Dubas can give up very little to get him, I don’t think this is the best way to spend your assets.
5. Matt Dumba: If I am the Minnesota Wild, I am not giving this player up unless it’s for a return that cannot be turned down. It seems like Dumba has been labelled as this offence first type of player, but the stats suggest quite the opposite, that he is actually better in his own end than he is in the opponents. He had one breakout year in the 2017-18 season where he had 50 points in a full 82 game season, that is quite impressive. But outside that, he has had a 34-point season, a 26-point season, and most recently 22 and 24 in that order. Those are still decent point totals for a defenceman, but not for one who has been tagged an offensive d-man. However, like I have said numerous times already, the Leafs don’t need offence, they need some defencemen who can clear the front of the net, win puck battles and move the puck up the ice effectively and efficiently. That’s exactly what Dumba does, and at 26 with 3 years left on his current deal that sees him make $6 million, I think that could be a very wise investment for Toronto.
Dustin Byfuglien: Let’s get a little crazy. Bring Big Buff to the 6. After an ugly divorce with the Winnipeg Jets, it will be very interesting to see if Byfuglien even decides to lace them up ever again. He took the season off after having surgery on his foot to remove bone that was undetected at the end of the year physical last season, who knows if he will want or be able to return to the NHL next season. However, if I am Kyle Dubas, I make a phone call just to check in on his status, see maybe if Toronto’s high-end medical staff could be of interest to him if he decides he wants to play again. Depending on how much money he could possibly want, he would be an ideal fit for Toronto as he is the embodiment of everything Toronto lacks, he is a big, nasty defenceman who makes crushing hits that would get every fan over 40 reminiscing about the good ol’ days when they played real hockey. It’s just a thought.
Ideally, Dubas can snag two of the 10 options here to play in your top 4 on the right side, but only time will tell what Kyle has planned for this Toronto team in dire need of some defensive reinforcements.